Communication Strategies for Interacting with Individuals with Dementia

Always Home Connected Dementia MapSubmitted by Evelyn Wilson
Always Home Connected

Caring for people with dementia can be a challenge, in more ways than one. One of the hardest aspects many carers and family members find is trying to communicate with their patient or loved one.

Often, patients can have sudden mood swings, forget things they were only just talking about a moment before, or may even appear to have totally different personalities and behaviors from day to day.

However, there are various useful communication methods and proven strategies you can use to break through the barriers, and this guide will highlight some of the most effective techniques.

Dementia and its Communication Challenges

Photo by Tim Doerfler on Unsplash

Patients with conditions like Alzheimer’s or other progressive brain disorders can have a hard time communicating. They may find it difficult to remember things, focus on any one subject for an extended period of time, or think clearly. 

They can also struggle to get their thoughts and ideas across to others, and this can lead to knock-on effects for both the patient and the people they’re trying to speak with. The patient may get frustrated and angry, while carers can struggle to interpret what they want to say.

Common Communication Barriers and Misconceptions

Some of the most common communication barriers with people with dementia include not being able to sustain a conversation on any given topic for an extended amount of time, as well as being unable to talk about things that have occurred in the past, which the patient may forget.

However, even though there are problems, it’s a common misconception that dementia patients are unable to have discussions. On their better days, these patients can be sharp and communicative, able to converse on many subjects.

Person-Centered Approach to Communication

One of the most effective and proven methods for communicating with dementia patients is the PCA or Person-Centered Approach, which was developed and put into early practice by American psychologist Carl Rogers. This method of communication is based around key concepts of understanding, empathy, and acceptance.

Creating a Supportive and Empathetic Environment

A big cornerstone of the PCA method of communication is to create a supportive and empathetic environment, in which the patient is able to feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible. It’s hoped that, in creating a comfortable and safe space, the patient will be more likely to feel at ease and express themselves with less fear and confusion.

Environment has a huge impact on dementia patients, and studies have shown how patients will feel happier and more peaceful when surrounded by things they find comforting. “Setting the scene” is therefore an important part of facilitating a dialog with a dementia patient.

Enhancing Communication and Engagement Through Dementia Toys

Another proven and effective aspect of communicating with dementia patients is to trigger speech and engagement with the aid of dementia toys. Dementia or Alzheimer’s toys can include the likes of sensory toys with many textures and elements, puzzles like jigsaws and blocks, or so-called “fidget toys,” which the patient can play around with in their hands

The right toy for each patient can depend on a wide range of factors, including their level of dementia and their general interests and character. It’s recommended to introduce multiple toys to the patient to see which they tend to gravitate towards the most.

Verbal Communication Techniques

The manner in which we speak to a dementia patient can also have a huge impact on the prospective success of any dialog or conversation. It’s recommended for carers and family members to adjust their patterns and methods of speaking in order to have a better chance of getting through to the patient.

Using Clear and Simple Language

One of the easiest ways to adjust your speech with a dementia patient is to focus on using clear, simple language. Try to opt for words that are short and direct, and always select shorter, easier-to-understand words when possible, rather than longer and more complex words which the patient could struggle to understand.

Even in patients who have previously shown a high level of intellect and conversational ability, it’s best to adjust your language and speak more simply, as their levels of understanding may not be as sharp as they once were.

Speaking Slowly and Calmly

It’s also best to speak slowly and calmly when interacting with a patient with dementia. Their minds may need more time than usual to process thoughts and ideas, as well as to take in what you’re saying, understand it, and formulate their response.

This can be difficult for family members and friends to adjust to, especially with loved ones who were once very eloquent and chatty, but it’s an important part of the process to help maintain conversations and discussions with those loved ones.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Non-Verbal Communication Techniques

Along with verbal communication techniques, there are various non-verbal techniques that can be practiced and employed to assist in conversing with dementia patients. This includes the use of touch and/or physical cues, as well as paying close attention to body language in the patient.

Using Touch and Physical Cues Appropriately

While it can be tempting or natural to want to touch, hug, and embrace family members with dementia, it’s important to monitor and control the ways in which you touch them, particularly on the days when they may be struggling with their memory or emotions.

Too much touching or physical contact can be overwhelming for the patient, especially when they’re already struggling to focus. Loved ones and carers should therefore use physical touches and cues with moderation, choosing the appropriate moments to physically connect with the patient so as not to overload them.

Paying Attention to Body Language and Emotions

Last but not least, carers and family members should also pay close attention to the body language of the patient. They may give off certain physical signs or cues to express their emotions, or they might do a certain gesture when they’re feeling frustrated or struggling to remember something.

Over time, with practice and repetition, you can learn these cues in order to better understand the patient’s frame of mind and their emotions. Then, in turn, it should become easier to read the patient and make the necessary adjustments to prevent them getting upset or emotional.

Always Home Connected Dementia MapEvelyn Wilson
Always Home Connected

Always Home Connected offers curated activities, selected in consultation with professionals, aging services providers, family, and friends. Our goal is to provide families and caregivers with activities that can create meaningful engagement for individuals with cognitive decline.

Visit Always Home Connected on Dementia Map or on their website.

Read more great articles like this one on the Dementia Map Blog!

Share Dementia Map with Family and Friends!